Friday, March 03, 2017

Sexual Positivism

"[D]o not treat any AAS meeting or other event as a venue for finding a romantic partner. Yes, there are people at our events, and yes, people do make romantic connections, and yes, there may even be opportunities to make such connections at our events, but please, everyone, just shelve these inclinations for our conferences. Too much damage is being done. Just one negative interaction in the poster hall, at a session, in the bar during the meeting, or at a restaurant or offsite event may be all it takes to dissuade a bright young scientist from participating in our field. This is unacceptable, and it needs to stop." (Kevin Marvel, Executive Officer, American Astronomical Society)

The annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society lasts about five days. A conservative estimate puts attendance at around 2500. (The 2013 Long Beach meeting ran from Jan 6 to 10 and was attended by almost 3000 people.) That's 5 x 2500 = 12500 person-days of human interaction. Since 2008, or ten conferences back, that gives us 125,000 person-days of conference activity.

[Update: there are actually two conferences every year, though I'm told the summer conference is less popular. For this exercise, that only makes my estimates more conservative.]

Between 2008 and 2016 there were eight reported harassment incidents. I don't know how many were reported this year, but lets add two for good measure. That gives us ten. Now, there is of course a certain amount of under-reporting. But it must also be kept in mind that not all complaints are equally serious or equally "sexual", nor even "gendered". ("Reported behavior," Kevin Marvel told me, "has ranged from inappropriate touching or propositioning to harassing language or aggressive questioning to the point where people felt threatened. Not all of the complaints have been made by women against men. Not all of the complaints have been about sexual harassment, although the majority have been." Keep in mind that he's talking about exactly eight reports here, so this isn't so much a range as an itemization of the complaints.) So even if we imagine an under-reporting rate comparable to that for rape in society at large (sometimes said to be around 90%), by the time we remove the non sex-related offenses, we're still talking about no more than a dozen incidents in a ten year period covering 125,000 person-days of conference attendance. If we allow for an hour for each incident, and then double it for good measure, we're talking about a single person-day of harassment activity, 24 person-hours.

(I'm willing to discuss these estimates. They "inform my prior" as a Bayesian might put it. I'm happy to be better informed.)

Now, since each incident typically lasts only a few minutes (albeit sometimes spread over a handful of encounters), we're talking about a very small amount of actively bad behavior in a vast ocean of "acceptable" (if not of course necessarily ideal) behavior. (I'm not here dismissing or "erasing" the subjective experience of being harassed, which can of course last for days, and cause distress well beyond the time of the conference. I'm trying to quantify the behavior that anti-harassment policies actually police. I hope that is clear.) That, in and of itself, should put the current efforts to eradicate sexual harassment in perspective.

But that's not the only thing to notice. As I tried to point out in the imagined survey of sexual harassment that I would conduct if I were asked, we should not compare the bad behavior merely to acceptable behavior. Though I don't agree with it on this point, the AAS defines sexual harassment with a slogan that is useful here: "If it's unwanted, it's harassment." Like I say, that is wrong on many levels, but let's read it charitably and say that, in the case of romantic overtures, the line between harassment and seduction is whether or not the object of desire wants the attention. There are, of course, cases where a romantic proposition is not just "okay" (i.e., pleasantly rejected) but entirely "fine" (i.e., gladly accepted). In those cases, there is surely not talk of harassment, but consenting adults seeking sensual pleasure.

Now, as stated in my epigraph, according to the Executive Office of the American Astronomical Society, this "inclination" to seek sexual pleasure at conferences should be "shelved." Indeed, it is "unacceptable". But here is my question. How much such behavior is being forbidden to avoid about a dozen cases of "unwanted sexual attention" at conferences per decade? (Assuming my prior is reasonably accurate.) That is about one case per year where an astronomer is put into a situation that might put them off a career in science (, i.e., only will put them off it if they happen to be "dissuaded" by it.) Remember that Marvel explicitly proposes to suppress all romantic intention for the full five days of the conference "in the poster hall, at sessions, in the bar during the meeting," and even "at a restaurant or offsite event". The rule seems to allow for no exceptions, no "safe space" for romantic encounters.

I'm going to assume that this rule is not yet being observed by the majority of conference goers. So here is my question: how much positive sexual activity happens at the typical AAS annual meeting? Of the 125,000 person-days, or indeed the 8 million person-hours, how many are spent engaging in consensual romance, the adult pursuit of sensual pleasure? I'm going to venture that it's substantially more than 24 hours, which is where we set our prior for harassment activity. For some reason, the executives of the American Astronomical Society would forbid this. Let me end with a follow up question. For every "bright young scientist" who might be dissuaded from pursuing a career in astronomy because a colleague laid an ill-considered line on her (or an even less well-thought-out hand on her knee) how many would be "turned off" of the field (or just the conferences) because of a rule forcing them, and everyone around them, to "shelve" their natural romantic inclinations? How many scientists want to work in a field where love is forbidden?

I'll leave it there. I hope this provides some basis for discussing what appears [or at least pretends] to be the official policy of the AAS. Let's keep it positive, friends!


Anonymous said...


This comment presents historical facts without judgment, except to write that there is some parallel to the love that developed between the female student and the male professor described at

At the AAS meeting in January 1985 held in Charlottesville VA, a graduate student, Joan T. Schmelz met and fell in love with the radio astronomer, Gerrit L. Verschuur (NRAO Greenbank). She was 26; he was 48; delta > 20 years. They married a year later, May 10, 1986. It was his second marriage. They have managed to move together from place to place throughout their astronomy careers.

Thomas said...

Thanks. It's interesting how things change.